Wrestler's being forced to cut his dreadlocks sparks civil rights probe

Image: Andrew Johnson of Buena Regional High School
Andrew Johnson of Buena Regional High School being forced to get a haircut rather than forfeit the game. -
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New Jersey has opened a state civil rights investigation into the case of a black high school wrestler told by a referee to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a wrestling match in an incident caught on video that has gone viral.

The haircut to Andrew Johnson, a black varsity wrestler from Buena Regional High School in Atlantic County, on the order of referee Alan Maloney, who is white, was captured on a video that has been viewed more than 14.5 million times.

The incident Wednesday night has drawn condemnation from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, film director Ava DuVernay, Olympic wrestler Jordan Burroughs and the state ACLU, among others.

The investigation was confirmed by Larry White, executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees high school sports in the state.

White said the probe by the Division on Civil Rights, which is overseen by the state attorney general, will take precedence over his organization's process.

"The N.J.S.I.A.A. takes this matter very seriously, and I ask that everyone respect the investigatory process related to all parties involved," White said.

"I clearly understand the issues at play, and probably better than most," said White, who said he spoke as "an African-American and parent," as well as a former educator, coach, official and athlete.

He also said the referee will not be assigned any matches until the review is complete.

The state Office of the Attorney General did not immediately return a request for comment by NBC News.

At the match Wednesday, the student wrestler was told that his hair and headgear were not compliant with regulation and would have to instantly cut his long locks or forfeit the round, according to a statement Friday from the Buena Regional School District.

Mike Frankel, the reporter whose tweet of video of the incident went viral, said on Twitter that as Johnson's coaches argued about the referee's ruling, the injury-time clock was started, at which point Johnson agreed to have his hair cut.

Johnson went on to win the match in sudden-victory overtime.

Gov. Murphy said Saturday that he was "deeply disturbed" by the video.

"No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity and playing sports," Murphy said on Twitter.

Burroughs, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion, described the incident as "nonsense" in social media posts.

"My opinion is that this was a combination of an abuse of power, racism, and just plain negligence," Burroughs said Saturday.

The Olympian also said that he has wrestled for 25 years, at every level, and has never witnessed a person be required to have a haircut during a match.

Maloney was accused of calling another referee a racial slur during a March 2016 social gathering, according to the Courier-Post Journal of South Jersey.